Spring’s Shining Wake
Les nuits d’été
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 13 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Nature and seasons guided this BBC Symphony Orchestra Prom, opening with the first Proms performance of Anthony Payne’s Spring’s Shining Wake, composed in 1981. For now, Payne is probably remembered more for his ‘elaboration’ of Elgar’s Third Symphony, an astonishing act of imagination, know-how and understanding, but he was a substantial composer and, for want of a better word, a ‘complete’ musician. He was also a delightful and responsive man, and he and his wife Jane Manning – they both died earlier this year – are much missed.
The listener may have wondered whether Payne’s approach to Spring’s Shining Wake and to the Elgar weren’t broadly similar. In his programme note, Payne describes his need to move on from the influence of Delius and English late-romanticism, and his analytic shadowing of Delius’s In a summer garden was a means to that end, I suppose a self-inflicted purging. Spacious, quietly animated string chords backing bird calls from the woodwind evoked a Messiaen-like sense of process, enhanced by some deftly applied percussion highlights, with some distant horn calls leaking into central-casting romanticism. The overall momentum was slow, dreamy and chromatic, as you might expect from Delius. A passage of climactic decisiveness felt like an ending and suggested that Payne’s work was a bit long, and the music’s impressionistic triggers were unmissable. At the back of my mind lurked the thought that his act of detachment was so sumptuous and attractive that it didn’t sound much like a farewell gesture.
From impressions of spring to summer darkness, a paradox that only deepens the ambiguities of Berlioz’s masterpiece Les nuits d’été, in a performance from Dame Sarah Connolly, Martyn Brabbins and the BBCSO that made me realise how much I’d missed live music. The ways in which singer, orchestra and conductor revealed layer after layer of this musical organism seemed endless. If Brabbins had conjured more of that distinctive string sound that was Colin Davis’s secret Berlioz ingredient, it would have been as though le spectre de Davis was in charge. Brabbins drew playing of the utmost subtlety and beauty from his players, compounded by Connolly’s genius in vocal shading and depth of musical intelligence, making a sound that flattered both orchestra and Théophile Gautier’s wildly romantic imagery. It doesn’t seem overheated to write that Connolly kept infecting the cycle of six songs with hints of an underlying scenario that took in Orpheus and Euridice, moved on to Tristan und Isolde and ended in undying love’s impetuous flight to paradise. Connolly’s fans know what magic she can express, but this was exceptional.
Brabbins then went on to leave us in no doubt as to the breadth of his skill in a completely apposite, thought-through performance of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. The first movement’s genial opening, slightly more purposeful in the repeat, became more business-like in the development; the woodwind’s birdies circled the brook in fine style; and the peasants enjoyed a rather metropolitan merry knees-up in the Scherzo. The first trumpet call heralding a change in the weather had a satisfying tuba mirum frisson, and I loved the way Brabbins mixed up the Finale’s hymn of praise with flashes of garrulous self-importance. Throughout he pitched the music perfectly between symphonic sweep and more easy-going serenade, so that Beethoven’s imagery jumped off the page.